New Book Examines Less Visible Penalties for Convicts


In “Life on the Outside,” Jennifer Gonnerman writes that “thirteen million people have been convicted of a felony and spent some time locked up. That’s almost 7 percent of U.S. adult residents.If all of these people were placed on an island together, that island would have a population larger than many countries, including Sweden, Bolivia, Senegal, Greece or Somalia.”

Ex-cons are marooned in the poor inner-city neighborhoods where legitimate jobs do not exist and the enterprises that led them to prison in the first place are ever present, the New York Times reports in a review of Gonnerman’s book.

These men and women are further cut off from the mainstream by sanctions that are largely invisible to those of us who have never been to prison. They are commonly denied the right to vote, parental rights, drivers’ licenses, student loans and residency in public housing — the only housing that marginal, jobless people can afford. The most severe sanctions are reserved for former drug offenders, who have been treated worse than murderers since the start of the so-called war on drugs. The Welfare Reform Act of 1996, for example, imposed a lifetime ban on food stamp and welfare eligibility for people convicted of even a single drug felony. The states can opt out of the prohibition, but where it remains intact it cannot be lifted even for ex-prisoners who live model, crime-free lives.

Drug offenders, many of them former addicts, have been consigned to civic purgatory with no clear route to redemption. Gonnerman, a staff writer for The Village Voice, traces this disastrous policy back 30 years to the presidential ambitions of Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican New York governor who was denied his rightward-rushing party’s presidential nomination because he was seen as too liberal.

Rockefeller sought to prove his ”tough on crime” bona fides through a widely emulated package of drug laws that has come to be his chief legacy..


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